Barzun: Classic, Romantic, and Modern

May 21, 2019

Classic, Romantic, and Modern
Jacques Barzun
(Little, Brown; 1961) [1943]
255 p.

“Romantic” is a complicated word. Even if we use it just in an historical sense, applying to the period covering, roughly speaking, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, what do we mean? Do we mean that it was a period that exemplified

“a return to the Middle Ages, a love of the exotic, a revolt from Reason, an exaggeration of individualism, a liberation of the unconscious, a reaction against scientific method, a revival of pantheism, idealism, and catholicism, a rejection of artistic conventions, a preference for emotion, a movement back to nature, or a glorification of force[?]”

The word has been used to mean these and many other things. (This book has an entertaining chapter in which Barzun does nothing but compile usage examples and try to tease out the implied meaning.) Barzun’s purpose in this book is to clarify our understanding of the romantic period, to defend it against its critics, and, in the process, to set forth a theory of historical development in which romanticism, whether under that name or another smelling as sweet, plays an essential part.


Following conventional usage, Barzun takes ‘romanticism’ to refer to a movement in European culture by a group of artists and thinkers whose births fell roughly between 1770 and 1815. We are talking about Blake, Goethe, Keats, Kant, Byron, Schiller, Emerson, Beethoven, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, Chopin, and Scott, among (of course) many others. This was a group that was far from united, but Barzun argues that they are all justly ‘romantics’ because of two essential features: first, they understood themselves to be doing something in contrast to the “dissolving eighteenth century”, doing something constructive and creative, in search of new ideas and new institutions; and, second, that they shared a double awareness that man is simultaneous both great and vulnerable, he is “created and limited, a doer and a sufferer, infinite in spirit and finite in action”. These two characteristics Barzun argues are basic to romanticism, underlying the welter of different ideas and forms that sprung from it.

As an effort to find common ground uniting these many different figures, this is worth considering. At the same time, the idea that man is an intersection of the infinite and the finite is hardly an idea distinctive of romanticism. You’ll find it in Dante and Augustine. It is in some sense just a Christian idea. And, indeed, later Barzun argues that romantic life was basically Christian in character, “for it [combined] the infinite worth of the individual soul in its power and weakness, the search for union with the infinite, and the gospel of work for one’s fellow men.” The argument, then, must be not that this duality was unique to the romantics, but only that it exercised a particular influence over their thought.

He discerns four main phases in the career of romanticism, and it is worth sketching them. The first, from roughly 1780 to 1850, was the heyday of the romantics, during which most of the most eminent figures did their most creative work. The subsequent phases were “efforts at specialization, selection, refinement, and intensification” of the paths forged in the first phase.

The second phase Barzun calls “realism”, which he dates to about 1850-1885. This was an exploration of the political ramifications of romanticism (especially in Marx) and involved a turn toward materialism and coercion, under the tutelage of the physical sciences: “realism meant force without principle, matter without mind, mechanism without life.” It was a simplification of the original complexity of romanticism, but shared the goals of the romantics: “nationhood, social order, intellectual unity, the improvement of the human lot”.

The third and fourth phases were more properly a split, as they occurred simultaneously. One was the symbolist movement originated by the pre-Raphaelites, rooted in Coleridge and Keats, that influenced Debussy, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Whistler. The other was what Barzun calls naturalism, exemplified by Dostoyevsky, Zola, and Huysmans; it was humanistic, and retained an interest in political and social issues that the symbolists largely lacked. Both movements lasted into the early twentieth century but were eventually displaced by “the modern”, about which more anon.


Barzun is keen to defend romanticism against its critics, or at least against unjust criticism. Reading between the lines, for instance, I infer that a strand of criticism at the time of writing — during WWII — was that romanticism was to blame for the rise of fascism and totalitarian politics. The idea seems to have been that with its elevation of national, local character and its revolutionary attitude toward social institutions, romanticism enabled or even abetted the revolutionary politics that produced the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich. The charge has a certain plausibility, for the romantics generally lauded both the American and French Revolutions. But Barzun argues that the romantics’ commitment to variety and innovation and their rejection of authority make a poor case for them as nascent totalitarians; for him, “the romantic style of doing things is the precise opposite of the totalitarian”. It is a fair point, yet I am reminded of Eliot’s argument that cultural movements, precisely because of the energies they release, might well tend toward a terminus that achieves the opposite of what they intend. (Eliot thought this true of liberalism.) The course of a cultural and intellectual movement sometimes overflows the bounds foreseen by its founders.

Romantics, in part because of their interest in fable and supernaturalism, were sometimes charged with “escapism”; in the twentieth century Tolkien met with a similar criticism for similar reasons. Barzun vigorously contests the charge; he sees them as unprejudiced realists, like explorers and scientists who opened up new vistas and experimented with different possibilities, all in an effort to adopt forms and subject matter which could convey their meaning. “They tried to meet the claim of every existing reality, both internal and external” and “they admitted the widest possible range of experience as real”. For them, life was the test of thought, not the other way around, and they were willing to stress accepted conventions and push boundaries of good taste in order to clear space for adequate expression of lived experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we understand this better today than did their critical contemporaries.


The book is not called simply “Romantic”, so let me say a word about the two foils: Classic and Modern. Classicism is the (if I may so say) classic foil for romanticism. Where romanticism is restless, iconoclastic, and questing, classicism values stable norms and social unity, for “no matter how arbitrary, conventions are useful and can be relied upon in proportion as they are held inviolable”. If Berlioz is a romantic, Haydn, I suppose, could be an exemplar of classicism. Societies with a strong classicist tendency are strong on hierarchies and clear social conventions. Barzun is sensible of the appeal and very real strengths of classicism:

It calls for intelligence, discipline, unselfish renunciation of private desires, a sense of social solidarity, and punctilious behaviour towards other members of one’s own caste.

At the same time, classicism has a kind of brittleness that makes it vulnerable. The unanimity it presents can be more apparent than real, imposed by social expectations rather than organically grown. Tumult may be concealed beneath a smooth exterior. When new problems arise classicism has a difficult time adapting.

Romanticism, too, has its weaknesses of course: it is turbulent, disorienting, and disruptive. It may be irrational. Societies which feel a need to break free of the constraints of a classical order may soon enough come to wish it back again. For this reason, Barzun sets forth in this book a theory of social change in which classical periods and romantic periods alternate, like the boom and bust cycle of an economy:

Periods of absorption alternate with periods of elimination; after diversity, simplification. Though both tendencies are at times present together, one dominates. Man explores and is romantic; man wants repose and becomes classical.

The nineteenth century was romantic; the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe were classical; the Renaissance was romantic, the late middle ages were classical. I think we could argue that the High Middle Ages — say, the 12th and 13th centuries — were romantic by Barzun’s definition, with many innovations in literature, architecture, and music. It’s an intriguing theory with a certain prima facie plausibility.

If it were true, it raises a question about our own times: is modernism a romanticism or a classicism? If modernism has yielded to something else — call it postmodernism — is that classical or romantic? Or has something happened to disrupt the cycle?

Barzun was writing in the 1940s, and at that time modernism was still in full swing. It seems he saw it is a defective species of classicism: elite and perfectionist, as classicism often is, but unable to tolerate solidification of any conventions, morbidly self-conscious and distrustful of its own desires, and skeptical. “It looks for certainties, guarantees of permanence and safety without, often, believing that they exist.” It searched for new, unassailable grounds on which to build, but was afflicted by a sense of universal purposelessness. Hardly promising material on which to found a stable social order.

This second edition of the book also includes, however, an epilogue written in 1960, a vantage point which allowed Barzun more perspective on cultural and social developments after WWII. He discerned two principal lines of development worthy of comment: first, the wholesale rebellion of artists against the Western inheritance, and, at the same time, nearly the opposite movement in the general public, who evinced a fresh desire for “the classics”. Rather than counterbalancing one another, Barzun saw them as working together to destroy the artistic tradition of the past five centuries. The artists were revolutionary, aiming “to produce in man a wholly new consciousness — not a new outlook upon the old makings of life, but a life made of a new substance.” They looked on the artistic heritage with contempt, as an obstacle rather than an inspiration. And the public — well, the public has bad taste, and when their appetite fixes on “the classics” it can only corrupt them. One problem is the cheapening effect of promulgating art through the channels of middle class commerce:

All the new media make arbitrary demands on the materials fed through them… To see the works of the Impressionists twisted into backgrounds for advertising perfume; to hear the melodies of Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, and Chopin rehandled by Tin Pan Alley; to listen to absent-minded hacks giving the lowdown on high art, not solely in blurbs for books and discs, in mass media, or over the air, but also on the walls of museums and in the glass cases of propagandistic libraries — all this is destructive in the same measure that it is communicative.

and another is the sheer abundance of material and ease of access, which sickens and sours the aesthetic sensibility:

Too much art in too many places means art robbed of its right associations, its exact forms, its concentrated power. We are grateful for the comprehensive repertoire which modern industry for the first time puts within our reach, but we turn sick at the aggressive temptation, like the novice in the sweetshop.

In our own time the general public’s interest in classic literature, music, and art has subsided, eclipsed, I would argue, by new media, but the opportunities for over-saturation have only become more common and more tempting.


Barzun, even in his epilogue, was writing only at the beginning of the 1960s, and, astute as he was, he seems not to have foreseen the cultural upheavals just a few years in his future. How I wish that he could have written a third edition in, say, the 1980s. It’s pretty clear that the 1960s were, in his taxonomy, a romantic period, with a rapid development of new artistic expressions, and a general breakdown of norms in art, sexuality, and society. Its aftermath is all around us, though I wonder if there are, perhaps, nascent signs of a return to classicism? Many people have documented the marked contrast between the children of the 1960s and the new “millenial” generation, which is more likely to be risk averse, less tolerant of unfamiliar ideas and the free expression of them, and more narrowly moralistic, though its list of sins runs along novel lines. The efforts of the baby boomers, now occupying the heights of power, to shore up their revolution by legal means is also typical, says, Barzun, of classicism, the unanimity of which is more often imposed than grown:

To suppose that one can have classicism without authoritarianism is like supposing that one can have braking power without friction.

We shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, Classic, Romantic, and Modern is a thoughtful and learned reflection on the last quarter-millenium of our cultural history, and remains well worth reading.

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